NZSO with Steven Osborne in Shostakovich, Beethoven, Webern

Conductor: Matthias Bamert with Steven Osborne (piano)

 Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op 1, by Webern, Piano Concerto No 1 (Shostakovich), Symphony No 7 (Beethoven)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. Friday 15 May 2009

There were many NZSO followers who were sorry when Matthias Bamert, who had several years as assistant chief conductor of the orchestra, did not become Music Director. However, he maintains his earlier, highly fruitful relationship. On paper, the programme looked a little odd; Webern has never become a much loved composer, apart from among a small band that sees music as an analytical challenge and professes to derive pleasure from esoterica.

His Opus 1, the Passacaglia, however, is another matter. Written before falling in with the rigours of Schoenberg’s 12-note system, it demonstrates the huge talent that seemed ready to carry forward the German tradition of Brahms and Wagner, Strauss and Mahler – and the young Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht and Pelléas and Mélisande. It is a work, like the two Schoenberg pieces mentioned, that arouses the hope that perhaps there’s a lost corpus of works by these composers that continue the tradition of communicable music, or that suggest, more constructively, that we have not given the later angular, intellectual works a fair go, and we should try harder: that of course is the proper approach.

For the Passacaglia is a passionate and engaging work which, given expose such as the tone poems of Strauss and Schoenberg enjoy, would seem to be a candidate for popularity. It’s a set of variations on a fairly sombre theme but which lends itself to a wide range of emotions; naturally, everyone points to its likely derivation from the last, Passacaglia, movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

We could hardly have had a more persuasive advocate for this piece than Bamert, whose credentials extend to every corner of the repertoire. Perhaps shamefully, I confess this was my first live hearing, and I was overwhelmed by the searing emotional richness, dynamic range and opulent orchestral canvas, and the evidence of Bamert’s aural imagination in laying it out, at once well-ordered and expressive.

There were no romantic langours, no self-indulgent excesses of rubato or dynamics; yet the orchestral detailing, the entrancing patterns of colour achieved through effects like muted tremolo passages for strings and brass, offered plenty of scope for the construction of a narrative background. And it prompted regret that Webern was soon to turn his back on such gifts.

It would have been hard to conceive of a greater contrast between the 1908 Webern and Shostakovich’s first piano concerto of 1933, both written around the age of 25. The former a strenuous effort to meet the over-heated expectations of late romantic Vienna, and his mentor Schoenberg in particular; the latter, an ebullient display of the youthful confidence and popular success that the young Shostakovich had won, in a soon to be shattered Communist dream. The word sardonic, almost automatically used to describe its character, suggests a hidden, anti-communist agenda; but is it correct to attribute to the composer, as early as 1933, incipient disillusionment with the system?

Again, Bamert proved his infallible taste and stylistic instinct, not to mention burning energy and an ability to inspire the orchestra to the greatest intensity, whether handling the frenzied excitement of the fast, circus-like passages or the moments of sentiment and even profundity in the Lento, or pointing up the array of parody quotes from all and sundry.

Steven Osborne was his ideal collaborator, capable of matching whatever speeds were adopted and responding precisely to the abrupt tempo and mood changes. The work is scored with no wind instruments, timpani and the trumpet being the only instruments to off-set the strings. The effect, made vivid by the riveting performance that was as much a show-case for the orchestra’s virtuosity as for the pianist’s, was to emphasise the brilliant, hard-edged piano and trumpet and the contrasting legato of the strings – black and white rather than full colour.

But it also drew smiles of delight from the audience, surprised by the rare, conspicuous appearance of wit in music. A piano encore in the shape of an improvisation on a jazz piece by Oscar Peterson could not have been better judged. Though it did prompt thoughts about the absence of visits in recent years by major figures of the jazz world. Have we heard anyone of the stature of Keith Jarrett in recent decades?

Finally, after the interval came Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The first two movements could have been called ‘studied’ or metronomic and they were, but they were also alive with a tension that was almost hypnotic, over a bed-rock pulse from rich basses and cellos.

I must have heard a performance of the symphony in my youth in which the Scherzo was so without variety that I developed an aversion to it, and what I felt were tedious repeats. Words scribbled on my cuff during this performance included ‘energy’, ‘intense’, ‘varied colouring in winds’, subtleties’. In other words, I didn’t long for that final chopped-off reprise.

I was prompted to note the conductor’s gestures during the last movement. They are compact, yet free and compelling, there was graceful bounce in its rhythms, a delicious bite in the strings; all sections of the orchestra created an opulent, integrated sound.


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